A Complete Guide to Visiting El Castillo Costa Rica
A Complete Guide to Visiting El Castillo Costa Rica

A Complete Guide to Visiting El Castillo Costa Rica

If you’re heading to the Arenal area in Costa Rica, then the chances are you’re going to La Fortuna…right? Well did you know that just a 45-minute bus ride away along the lake’s shore is El Castillo Costa Rica?

El Castillo is a small town that’s only just beginning to see tourists. It’s a quiet escape from the extremely popular La Fortuna making it a great spot for those who want to explore Lake Arenal without the crowds.

I spent a couple of nights in El Castillo. In this guide I’m going to share all of the information you need to know to visit the lakeside town and make the most of your time there.

Where is El Castillo Costa Rica

El Castillo is located on the south-eastern shore of Lake Arenal roughly 45 minutes on the bus from La Fortuna. The town lies within the Arenal Volcano National Park national park which in turn is located in Alajuela Province. From San Jose—the capital city of Costa Rica—it takes roughly 6 h to get to El Castillo.

How to get to El Castillo

I’ll break the journey to El Castillo Costa Rica down into 2 steps. First, I’ll explain getting from San Jose to La Fortuna and then from La Fortuna to El Castillo.

The centre of a small town. There is a road and some small shops. Cars are parked on the right-hand side.

San Jose to La Fortuna

The bus from San Jose goes directly to La Fortuna and leaves daily at 8:40 from terminal 710. The journey takes 4 h 30. A ticket currently costs 3,850 CRC ($7.5 US) and you pay in cash to the driver. 

A turquoise bus in s terminal. Passengers are queueing.

It’s best to arrive early at terminal 710. San Jose to La Fortuna is a popular route that works on a first-come first-serve basis and it’s likely the bus will fill. I recommend arriving at the terminal at least half an hour before to queue. If the bus fills, you will have to wait until the next day.

Depending on where in San Jose your accommodation is, terminal 710 could be a trek away. I paid around 2,000 CRC ($2 US) for a 15-minute Uber from my hostel to the terminal.

La Fortuna to El Castillo

There is one bus daily from La Fortuna to El Castillo. It leaves at 17:30 from La Fortuna main bus station and costs 1,700 CRC ($3.2 US).

As the bus from La Fortuna typically arrives around 13:00, you will have a few hours to kill. I recommend heading to a nearby hostel in La Fortuna to ask if you can store your luggage there and then exploring the town. This is what I did.

The bus will have a sign in the windscreen with ‘El Castillo’ written on it. There is also usually someone working at the bus station who you can ask to direct you to the right bus.

The journey between El Castillo and La Fortuna isn’t a common one even with locals. So don’t worry if you’re the only foreigner on board.

El Castillo runs along a stretch of the shore of Lake Arenal. You can get off the bus at multiple points throughout the town, the final stop being El Fosforo.

The bus from El Castillo to Arenal leaves once daily at 7:00. There are no buses on Sunday.

Where to stay in El Castillo

Accommodation in El Castillo Costa Rica is mostly mid-range. However, there are a couple of budget options.

Budget Accommodation in El Castillo

Rustico Arenal B&B

Rustico is a camping spot in El Fosforo. It’s perched atop a hill with a great view overlooking the lake and Arenal Volcano.

There are tents and 1 room available at Rustic. I stayed in the room which cost 8,800 CRC ($17 US) a night. Breakfast is not included. There is a self-catering kitchen but this has limited equipment.

Rustico is the cheapest accommodation option in El Castillo. However, their cancellation policy is very strict and was inaccurately described on their Bokoing.com page. I also felt that the accommodation as a whole was made out to be more than it was on Booking.com.

Despite my mixed review, being cheap means that Rustico Arenal might be your best accommodation in El Castillo.  

Sunset Inn

Sunset Inn is another accommodation located in El Fosforo with views of Lake Arenal and its volcanoes. There are camping and cabin options and the price per night starts at 12,300 CRC ($23 US). Breakfast is included in this price. Guests have access to a kitchen and free WIFI.

Mid-range accommodation in El Castillo

Los Tucanes Lodging

Los Tucanes is located close to the El Castillo butterfly conservatory. The price starts at 20,500 CRC ($40 US) a night and includes breakfast. You also have access to a kitchen and free WIFI.  

The property is one of the most highly rated and affordable on Booking.com. It has great views of the volcano and rooms look comfortable with double beds.

Essence Arenal Spa & Breakfast

Essence Arenal sits on the same road as Los Tucanes, only a little further away from the shore and past the butterfly conservatory. The views of the volcano aren’t as impressive but the lake is clearly visible.

This accommodation is another of the most highly rated with the lowest price on Booking.com. The price of a night at Essence Arenal starts at 22,500 ($44 US). Breakfast can be included for an additional cost. There is no kitchen access but there is a restaurant on site. The property offers free WIFI.

What to do in El Castillo Costa Rica

There isn’t a huge amount to do in El Castillo. Spending time here is more about disconnecting and enjoying the lake views.

Relax at the lake shore

There’s access to the lakeshore at multiple points along the main road. Look for gaps in the fence marked by small stone pillars. It’s a steep dirt trail down to the lake so watch out.

The shore of a lake. There are reeds growing at the shore. There is a volcano on the fare shore.

I didn’t swim in the lake and I didn’t see any locals swimming either. I believe you can, but the water didn’t look too enticing.

From the lake you get great views on Volcan Arenal, Cerro Chatto and the surrounding nature.

Spot birds

Many species of birds live in the Arenal area. El Castillo is a great place to spot them as the reduced level of tourism means humans haven’t encroached on natural habitats here too much yet. You’ll be able to see birds of all shapes, sizes and colours in El Castillo. Here’s a list of birds you can see in the Arenal National Park area.

A stalk stands atop a tree trunk.

Adventure activities

There is an adventure activity centre in the middle of El Castillo That’s open 6:00 – 18:00. Here you can pay to do a range of activities. Different companies offer different activities, but I spoke to someone working at the centre who told me the following average prices.

  • Kayaking 7,700 CRC ($15)/person 1-2 h
  • Paddleboarding 7,700 CRC ($15)/person 1-2 h
  • Boat tour 41,000 CRC ($80 US)/group 1-6 people 1 h 20 min (fixed price regardless of group size)
  • Jet skiing 61,600 CRC ($120 US) nationals / 74,400 CRC ($145 US) foreigners 1 h
  • Horse riding tours 23,000 CRC ($45 US)/person 2h 30
  • Hiking 12,800 CRC ($25 US)/person 2 h
A boat on a lake. There is a volcano behind the boat.

Butterfly conservatory

A US holiday maker founded the butterfly sanctuary in 2002 after becoming enchanted with Arenal’s nature. The conservatory aims to “develop, promote, and support environmental education and sustainable development relating to the regeneration of rainforest habitat and the butterflies native to the Arenal area of Costa Rica”.

The centre charges 10,200 ($20 US) for a 2 h tour where you’ll get to see various species of butterfly and frogs.

The conservatory is open Mon to Sunday 10:00 – 16:00. To get there, walk 800 m up the paved main road in El Castillo away from the lake towards the hills.

Top Tips for visiting El Castillo

Do your shopping in La Fortuna

There are few shops in El Castillo selling a limited range of things. You won’t be able to get fruit and vegetables, so buy all that you need in La Fortuna beforehand.

Get cash

Also get enough cash for your stay before you arrive. There is nowhere to withdraw cash in El Castillo. Card payment is not widely accepted.

Wake up early

El Castillo Costa Rica is the perfect place to rise early and make the most of the daylight. The local wildlife starts its day early too and birdsong rises to a crescendo in the morning.

A stalk stand on top of a broken tree trunk.

Plan your stay

The extremely limited bus service between El Castillo and La Fortuna doesn’t leave much room for spontaneity. It’s best to plan your stay in El Castillo so you don’t miss the bus back to La Fortuna.

More Costa Rica adventure travel advice on A World Over

Have a great time in El Castillo Costa Rica and make the most of the insane views of Arenal Volcano. They’re truly special and the lake shore is an amazing place to marvel at nature.

The town is becoming more popular and this will likely bring changes in the near future. If during your stay you notice something not included in this guide—or something outdated—feel free to leave a comment below. 

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